Under President Obama’s watch, many Americans have felt the risks and harms of the drilling and fracking boom. “Dear President Obama” introduces him to many of the victims.
I recently attended a film screening of “Dear President Obama, The Clean Energy Revolution Is Now,” a new documentary narrated by actor and activist Mark Ruffalo about the impact of hydraulic fracturing across the United States. Commonly referred to as “fracking,” it is a controversial drilling process to access oil and natural gas—primarily methane—trapped in underground shale deposits. While the fracking boom has created jobs and stimulated the economy, numerous studies have linked it to numerous environmental and health impacts.
The evening was hosted by ABC Home in downtown Manhattan, six huge stories of furniture and craft—with a mission where environment and social justice are just as much on the agenda as beauty and quality. The screening, held at a nearby AMC Theater, was followed by a discussion with an energized crowd led by Ruffalo and director Jon Bowermaster at Deepak Homebase, a salon-style meeting space at ABC Home named after author and mindfulness master Deepak Chopra, where many events are held to promote public discourse on a variety of important issues facing our time.
A direct appeal to the president to ban fracking, the film urges Obama (and all elected officials) to join the growing “anti-drilling” movement across the U.S. and accept the reality that the only reasonable energy policy is to leave the majority of fossil fuels in the ground, a position held by many leading scientists.
Filmed in over twenty states and featuring more than 120 interviews with scientists, economists, health professionals and activists, “Dear President Obama” is, importantly, about the people and families impacted by fracking, whose deeply personal stories are often overlooked by the mainstream media. These are the stories that Ruffalo and Bowermaster, the film’s co-producers, want Obama to hear.
Ths film also firmly establishes Ruffalo, who helped spearhead the utlimately successful movement in his home state of New York to ban fracking, as a powerful and inspirational advocate of renewable energy.
Mark Ruffalo holding a jug of water from Dimock, Pennsylvania, that has been contaminated by fracking. (image: Jessica Riehl/Dear President Obama)
The film opens with a sobering statistic: “More than 17 million Americans live within one mile of a gas or oil well.” That is followed by a series of clips of President Obama that reveal a schizophrenic outlook on climate and energy. On one hand, the president acknowledges the negative impact of fossil fuels, as he did in May 2009 during remarks on new federal fuel efficiency standards, saying that “ending our dependence on fossil fuels represents perhaps our most difficult challenge we have ever faced.”
Then, in another clip, the president casts himself as a champion of renewable energy at a White House press conference in February 2010, saying, “I am very firm in my conviction that the country that leads the way in clean energy—solar, wind, biodiesel, geothermal—that country is going to win the race on the 21st-century global economy.”
But then, he goes on to promote an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, as he did two years later during his 2012 State of the Union Address:
American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years. … We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years. … This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy.
As the president uttered that last line, most members of Congress erupted in vigorous applause, many giving him a standing ovation. Indeed, who among them could deny the allure of ending America’s dependence on foreign oil (which accounts for around 40 percent of the nation’s annual petroleum consumption), while at the same time creating jobs (the numbers of which have regularly been overstated by the oil and gas industry)?
Visiting Las Vegas two days after his State of the Union, Obama described America as “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” calling on the nation to use natural gas to fuel more vehicles. (Currently, natural gas is primarily used as a residential and commercial heating fuel.) The president’s comments came on the heels of his announcement of the sale of oil and gas leases to the fossil fuel industry to drill across almost 38 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We have a record number of oil rigs operating right now,” he said a month a later during a speech at the University of Miami about energy policy and gas prices. “More working oil and gas rigs than the rest of the world combined.”
Then shortly after that, during a speech at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland, Obama said, “So do not tell me that we’re not drilling. We’re drilling all over this country.”
The film then shows the president two years later, delivering his 2014 State of the Union Address, recasting himself again, this time as a climate warrior: “Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” Again, big applause from the members of Congress.
As the film makes clear, Obama’s climate rhetoric is at loggerheads with his “all-of-the-above” energy policy.
“He’s trying to have it both ways,” says Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and author of “Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels,” in the film. “Please the oil and gas industry, lower energy prices by producing more oil and gas. But on the other hand, regulate the coal industry to reduce emissions. It’s not that simple.”
One complication is the rising demand for natural gas. On June 6, natural gas prices rose to a new five-month high. “The recent forecast of a hotter summer is expected to increase the air conditioning requirements leading to increased gas-powered electricity,” notes Rakesh Upadhyay, a writer for Divergente, a consulting firm.
Natural gas “has increasingly become used to power electric utilities and in 2015, tied coal as the leading fuel source,” writes Robert Boslego, an energy price risk management expert, on Seeking Alpha. “As a result, its demand rises during the summer with electricity used to power air conditioners.”
Fracking activity has left deep scars across California’s landscape. (image: Les Stone/Dear President Obama)
Much to the perturbation of fracktivists and renewable energy advocates, the president and his “all-of-the-above” supporters staunchly believe that fracking is key to the nation’s energy security—that it’s a “bridge” fuel that will evenutally get us to the promised land of renewable energy. However, the fact remains that pursuing natural gas maintains the nation’s dependence of fossil fuels and delays much-needed investments in clean, renewable sources of energy.
I recently talked to Josh Fox, director of “Gasland”, a 2010 documentary that helped launch the anti-fracking movement, and more recently, “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change” (airing on HBO on June 27) about the notion of natural gas acting as “bridge to clean energy,” a concept supported by both President Obama and Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton. Fox, who was also interviewed in “Dear President Obama,” slammed the “bridge fuel” idea as “completely deceptive.” He said:
The bridge fuel argument means we’re going to switch our entire electricity sector to fracked natural gas. That means building 300 fracked gas power plants around America. That means hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines. It means probably 2 million new fracking wells. And those power plants aren’t financed for five years. They’re financed, like most people’s houses, for 30 or 40 years. That’s a regime change in American energy to fracking.
What’s more, the idea that natural gas is a “clean” fuel, simply because it burns cleaner than coal, completely misses the fact that the fracking process releases its main target, methane, into the atmosphere. Can the president truly be serious about tackling climate change when he supports a fossil fuel drilling method that unleashes a greenhouse gas that the EPA says is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period?
Part of the economic allure of natural gas is that it is seen as the logical next step from crude oil, prices of which have plummeted, resulting in sharp downturns for oil companies.
As New York Times national business correspondent Clifford Krauss recently wrote:
Earnings are down for companies that made record profits in recent years, leading them to decommission more than two-thirds of their rigs and sharply cut investment in exploration and production. Scores of companies have gone bankrupt and an estimated 250,000 oil workers—roughly half in the United States—have lost their jobs. The cause is the plunging price of a barrel of oil, which at one point fell more than 70 percent compared with June 2014 levels.
But forecasting the natural gas market based on plummeting crude oil prices is not an easy task; indeed, there may be little connection between the two.
“Based on the price patterns observed over the last decade, it is difficult to make definite conclusions about the correlation between crude oil and natural gas prices,” writes Shobhit Seth, a financial writer and derivatives trader, on Investopedia. However, he notes that “the natural gas market, in the form of liquid natural gas is expected to grow dramatically in coming years, which will perhaps result in gas becoming a global energy commodity.”
Dirk, a resident of Conway, Arkansas, who was interviewed in the film, with a map identifying the sites of earthquakes in his state that are believed to have been caused by fracking. (image: Dear President Obama)
In the film, Ruffalo suggests that Obama’s warm embrace of fracking tarnishes his green credentials—in addition to fattening the fossil fuel dynasty that has already caused so much environmental harm, from the Exxon Valdez spill to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. “Though the United States has a long relationship with the oil and gas industry going back more than a century,” Ruffalo says, “today’s new extreme energy extraction gold rush may prove to be the president’s most profound and possibly most damaging environmental legacy.”
During the lively post-screening discussion at ABC Home’s Deepak Homebase, Ruffalo and Bowermaster talked about the film and the state of the anti-fracking movement. Ruffalo described the movement’s three primary goals: “One is to keep [fossil fuels] in the ground. Two is to build up renewable energy as fast as we can. And three is to shut down places that are using gas-fired power plants.”
He also talked about the unique situation in his home state of New York, so far the only state sitting on large shale reserves that has banned fracking:
In New York we’re very fortunate. We have a governor who’s willing to keep it in the ground very much because of the pressure that a lot of the people in this room put on him, very much because of the scientific community who really stepped up with creating a space for us to say that this is wrong. Very much because of health studies that created a compendium of health studies, science studies, that basically showed how horrible this was for the earth’s sake. Our governor had the guts to lead and lead the nation and ban fracking. Now we’re also leading the nation in renewable energy.
While President Obama’s presidency is drawing to an end, the hot-button issue of fracking—and its various impacts—will long outlive his term. “Though nominally targeting the current President,” Bowermaster said, “the message of the film is aimed at every elected official in the U.S. ‘Keep fossil fuels in the ground’ should be the new mantra for them all.”
Since 2008, during Obama’s tenure in the White House, American drilling and fracking industries have undergone a boom. Proponents of fossil fuel had argued that this newfangled “gold rush” would establish the nation’s long sought-after energy independence. But, as the film points out, the oil and gas industry has always been a boom-and-bust industry. In the past year, with plunging oil and gas prices, Big Oil has been forced to close rigs and lay off workers. In fact, the real impact of the boom is that it delayed investments in new sources of renewable energy, like wind, solar, hydro and geothermal.
“The idea that natural gas is going to be a bridge fuel is…an actual game playing to our demise,” said Ruffalo at the post-screening discussion. “Anything that we thought that we would gain by burning the cute little blue flame is completely obliterated by what what we lose in methane leakage, by transportation of methane, by leaking of the pipelines, by leaking when we’re drilling it. Methane will be our demise.”
While “Dear President Obama” ably takes viewers through the science and politics behind fracking, it is the stories of everyday people whose lives have been harmed by the process that animate the film’s emotional center.
“Bradford and Susquehanna County had the two best air qualities in the state of Pennsylvania before [fracking] started,” said Matt, a resident of Franklin Forks, Pennsylvania, who was interviewed in the film along with his partner Tammy. “Now Bradford County and Susquehanna County have the worst quality of air in the whole state. … A year after we moved into here, one day, all of a sudden, our water turned all gray. And our neighbors’ water turned all gray. Our well filled with methane and turned black. Our well was actually erupting like a geyser because there was so much methane in it.”
In the fracking process, water mixed with a complex cocktail of chemicals is injected deep into underground shale deposits, where is creates fissures in the rock to release the methane trapped inside. On its way down and back up to the surface again, this mixture picks up all sorts of other chemicals, some of which, like benzene, are known carcinogens. Water contamination is one of the main byproducts of fracking.
“We haven’t had any water for six years,” said Ray, a resident of Dimock, Pennsylvania, who was interviewed in the film, along with his partner Victoria. “This place is spoiled now. I can’t leave it to my kids. For what? So they can keep hauling water the rest of their lives? The government can have it back, if they want it so goddamn bad.”
A recent federal re-analysis of drinking well samples taken from Dimock in 2012 found that there was fracking contamination and health and explosion risk, contradicting a previous EPA study that found the water safe.
In California, a farmer tends crops right next to a fracking site. Oil and gas companies have been selling treated fracking wastewater to the state’s farmers to grow crops (photo: Les Stone/Dear President Obama)
“This is rural America. It’s country,” said Rebecca, a resident of Brooklyn Township, Pennsylvania. “We’re a marginalized sub-population and our lives are not valued as much as people living in dense areas like a city. We’re disposable. My life is disposable. And that’s really difficult to fight. …To change the regulations, the FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] regulations, you need legislators. And for this county, it’s basically a done deal.”
While the film focuses on the dangers of fracking, it also recognizes that fracking is just one part of a bigger problem, as massive drilling plans are underway across the nation. “Companies are drilling deeper, accidents more frequent, dangers constant,” says Ruffalo in the film. “Vast acres of public lands in the deep sea are being drilled at all time highs.”
In keeping with the setup of the film, Ruffalo addresses President Obama directly:
In order to try and put coal out of business, you sided with natural gas. But the shale gas boom that many said would be a bridge to a new energy future has turned out to be nothing more than a dead end. By trying to please everyone, I’m afraid that your “all-of-the-above” energy policy has left many millions of Americans in harm’s way. … We must join together to shift the power and change our energy system. The time is now to reposer out country with energy from the sun, the wind and the water. The time for a clean energy revolution is now.
The film reiterates one of the mantras of the clean energy movement: The U.S. can transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. There are many positive signs, not least of which is the fact that New York—which, like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, sits atop the natural gas-rich Marcellus shale formation—enacted a fracking ban. The eventual passage of ban, many years in the making, revealed the true power of grassroots activism, inspiring fracktivists around the nation and the globe. “Looking back decades from now, the battle fought here may be remembered as the first great victory in the clean energy revolution,” says Ruffalo in the film.
He also points out that Iowa generates 27 percent of it energy from wind. That California’s fleet of electric cars is solar-powered. (Since 2010, the state’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project has put over 100,000 clean vehicles on California’s roads.) And, that “more jobs are being created in renewable energy industries than in oil and gas extraction.”
“Solutions to our energy quandary are available today,” Ruffalo argues. “But what is required is a plan. A vision. A bold leader.”
So far, Obama has fallen short. When it comes to the environment, he has done some good things. He has fought Big Coal and called out climate deniers. But the president’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy—which includes opening the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico to new offshore drilling—has kept the nation’s addiction to fossil fuel firmly intact, effectively postponing the clean energy revolution that environmentalists argue is needed right now.
Of course, a bold leader is needed. But, as Ruffalo acknowledges in the film, “If we want to keep moving to a future free of fossil fuels, then real change must come from ourselves.”
Young fracktivists in California. The state’s recent methane gas leak, in Los Angeles, was the worst man-made greenhouse gas disaster in U.S. history. (image: Dear President Obama)
We all need and use energy. But there are choices that we can make to reduce our impact. Business owners and homeowners can ask their electricity provider to offer renewable energy as an option to include in their energy portfolios. Voters in shale-bearing states can join activist groups to ban fracking, as they did in New York. Consumers can measure their personal carbon footprint with a goal to make it smaller.
During the post-screening discussion, Bowermaster challenged the audience to look in the mirror, acknowledging that “this is where people kind of start looking at their feet.” He said, “Think about what you have done personally in the last six months to lessen your impact and your demand for fossil fuel.” He may have been preaching to the choir just a little bit: It’s a fairly safe bet that most of the gathered attendees have thought about such things. And scattered through the crowd were several front-line activists working on green initiatives from Pennsylvania to Colorado.
Still, his point is well taken. Indeed, leaders are needed, and not just in the White House, Capitol Hill and legislatures and governorships in every state, as well as on the front lines of grassroots activism. We as citizens must have the courage to show leadership in our own lives, in our own families, in our own circles.
While much of the film will leave viewers in dismay at the harsh impacts of fracking, one segment of the film in particular offers inspiration for those thinking about becoming involved in the nationwide movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground. In that segment, Richard Schrader, Political and Legislative Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, speaks to a group of activists gathered in Albany, energized and jubilant after receiving the news that Governor Andrew Cuomo had just signed the state’s fracking ban into law. He said:
We were here in 2009 with Mark Ruffalo and Pete Seeger, really the kickoff … that infused the spirit of the grassroots part of this whole campaign. … And without that energy, grit, determination and guts, we wouldn’t be here today. … This is a momentous victory. Don’t forget that. And we beat an extraordinarily rich, extraordinarily powerful adversary. The same adversaries are going to try to fight us as we move forward on renewables. They’re trying to kill wind in Washington. They’re trying to kill solar in Washington. They tried to kill solar in this state but they failed. But you know something? We beat them then, we beat them yesterday, we’ll beat them tomorrow as well.
The crowd cheered. But for many long-suffering Americans whose lives have already been irreparably damaged by the fracking boom, the fossil fuel regime has already won. For them, there is no cheering. Just hopelessness and resignation.
“It’s getting bigger and it’s getting noisier. And that noise probably won’t go away,” said Jonathan, a resident of West Union, West Virginia, who was interviewed in the film. As wild birds chirped in the densely wooded area around his property, he described the steady growth of a pump station near his house, where his grandfather used to work. “There’s not a whole lot you can do about it, because I’m just a landowner.”
“The rape of Appalachia ain’t nothing new,” he added. “If they showed people just a little bit more respect, we could probably swallow it a whole lot easier.”
At the post-screening discussion, Ruffalo spoke for people like Richard and others across the nation who have suffered the impacts of fracking. In person, he was every bit the inspirational and animated figure who helped coalesce the anti-fracking movement in New York. Now, with his film, he’s taking his message to the nation. He said to the fired-up New York crowd:
The great story about New York state is we are actually leading the nation in renewable energy build up. … We have the clean power plan that is happening and New Yorkers for Clean Power that is happening right now. I urge you all to be involved in this because this is how we’re going to transition. The faster we can adopt renewable energy the quicker we can stop fossil fuel extraction.
Ruffalo was careful to point out that every American needs to understand this issue, but also acknowledged the necessity to take the message to a global level and build upon the international interest that the film has already generated:
The global scale is obviously very important, but honestly we need to take one step at a time. We need to make sure that everyone in the United States understands this issue first. Because of the slightly provocative name of the film, we’ve had invitations from countries around the world: China, Croatia, Columbia. Wherever there’s a strike unit and fracking going on, they want us to bring this as an educational tool.
Mark Ruffalo at the post-screening discussion at Deepak Homebase, ABC Home, May 25, 2016 (image courtesy Ocean 8 Films)
Amidst a crowd enrapt by his contagious passion, Ruffalo talked about the importance—and difficulty—of becoming an active participant in the clean energy revolution:
To make change happen, we have to stop it ourselves, and that, in some large ways, starts with making ourselves more uncomfortable. …Ultimately [this] is a system where we only take, we take and we take and we take; we do not replenish. It’s not reciprocal and what we’re seeing now is the physical limitations of this system. It’s not going to go backwards; we’re not going to suddenly find some huge amount of some sort of substance that’s all of the sudden going to make us be able to continue taking, taking and taking without putting it back. It’s a systematic problem.
It’s a tough discussion to have, and there’s some very, very important people in this room. This system as a whole is failing us, and it will continue to fail us. Climate change is a reality; the clear crystalline reality of those global economic concepts have come to manifest themselves directly in our lives today, and there’s no turning back. It will force us to have this difficult discussion. The sooner we have it, the better off our children will be, because ultimately, that’s what we’re talking about here. That’s why I’m here.
In a video clip of the president early in the film, President Obama says, “For the sake of our security, our economy and our planet, we must have the courage and commitment to change.” As “Dear President Obama” makes abundantly clear, he has yet to take his own advice. However, Mark Ruffalo, Jon Bowermaster and a growing legion of activists have done just that.
For more information about “Dear President Obama,” including nationwide screening locations and dates, visit: http://www.dearpresidentobama.com.
Watch the trailer: